Find surprising things to do in Milan

written by Greg Dickinson
updated 11/8/2022
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The information in this article is inspired by The Rough Guide to Italy

, your essential guide for Italy .

Find things to do in Milan

that go beyond fashion and designer glamour. Discover the city's awesome architecture and parks, ride around on bikes, hop trams and sail its canals. Milan is amazing, take a look.

Discover the best things to do in Milan, Italy

The dynamo behind the country’s “economic miracle” in the 1950s, Milan is an Italian city like no other.

It’s foggy in winter, muggy and mosquito-ridden in summer, and is closer in outlook, as well as distance, to London than to Palermo. It’s a historic city, with a spectacular cathedral and enough ancient churches and galleries to keep you busy for a week. There are also bars and cafés to relax in, and the contemporary aspects of the place represent the cutting edge of Italy’s fashion and design industry.

Milan wears its history on its well-tailored sleeve. Medieval buildings nestle next to nineteenth-century splendour, rickety trams trundle past overgrown bombsites left from World War II and Fascist-era bombastic facades. But the Milanese keep the best for themselves: peep through a doorway into one of Milan’s fabulous courtyards and you will be smitten.

Find things to do in Milan by bike

Milan

is a very walkable city, but think creatively about getting about here too. The city's vintage 1920's trams are charming. Or you could borrow a BikeMi and cycle Montanelli Gardens and peaceful Sempione Park.

Milan is among the most beautiful places to visit in Italy. Check out our guide to the most beautiful places in Italy

to get inspiration for your future Italian trip.

Roam the bohemian Navigli Quarter

Head southwest in Milan to explore the bohemian Navigli

district. Partially designed by none other than Leonardo Da Vinci, this is the canal quarter and back in the day it was one of the city's main trade routes.

Take a guided Navigli canal cruise to find out more about the waterways which historically transported marble between Genoa

and Milan. Then visit Navigli's Sunday flea market or come any time for canal-side cafés, restaurants and bars.

Head to Navigli for things to do in Milan at night © Sergey Dzyuba/Shutterstock

Toast aperitivo for hours

Aperitivo is a custom all over Italy

, but the tradition of early evening drinks and free snacks is taken to another level in Milan . Here aperitivo hour tends to run on for a few hours, usually starting at 6pm and ending about 9pm.

For the liveliest atmosphere, and most innovative food and a focus on classic cocktails, try Milan's Isola district. And if you can't bear to tear yourself away from after aperitivo, think about staying at BePlace Apartments in Isola.

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Marvel at the beauty of Duomo di Milano

The hub of the city is Piazza del Duomo, a large, mostly pedestrianized square lorded over by the exaggerated spires of the Duomo, Milan’s cathedral.

Milan’s vast Duomo was begun in 1386 under the Viscontis, but not completed until the finishing touches to the facade were added in 1938. It is characterized by a hotchpotch of styles that range from Gothic to Neoclassical. From the outside at least it’s incredible, notable as much for its strange confection of Baroque and Gothic decoration as its sheer size.

The Museo del Duomo is totally worth your time. It houses a large collection of historical treasures including sculptures, stained-glass windows, paintings, tapestries and embroideries from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries. The Tesoro del Duomo showcases a collection of antique objects, including ivory diptychs dating from the fifth to the ninth century.

Visiting Milan duomo cathedral roof is one of the best things to do in Milan, Italy © Shutterstock

Visit Santa Maria Delle Grazie

Due west from the Duomo, on Corso Magenta, stands the attraction that brings most visitors to Milan – the beautiful terracotta-and-brick church of Santa Maria delle Grazie. It is famous for its mural of The Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci. More ancient exhibits are on display at the city’s Museo Archeologico, while the nearby Sant’Ambrogio is one of the city’s loveliest churches.

Leonardo’s The Last Supper – signposted Cenacolo Vinciano – is one of the world’s great paintings and most resonant images. Henry James likened the painting to an “illustrious invalid” that people visited with “leave-taking sighs and almost death-bed or tip-toe precautions”. Certainly it’s hard, when you visit the fragile painting, not to feel that it’s the last time you’ll see it.

Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan © Shutterstock

Take a walk through Parco Sempione

The Parco Sempione, the city centre’s largest area of greenery, was laid out in the castle’s old hunting grounds and orchards. It can make a refreshing break from the city’s traffic-choked roads, with a playground for younger kids, grass to sprawl or kick a football on and a café or two.

On the eastern edge of the park is the Arena Civica, a Colosseum-inspired area where mock chariot races and naval battles were held to entertain Napoleon’s generals. Nearby, in a pretty Liberty building, the Acquario Civico focuses on marine life in Italian fresh- and saltwater environments. Its small collection of tanks will keep children entertained for a spell.

Opposite, on the western edge, the Torre Branca, designed by Gio Ponte on the occasion of the fifth Triennale in 1933, offers a birds-eye view of the city.

Arco della pace at the end of parco Sempione, Milan, Italy © Federico Rostagna/Shutterstock

Shop in Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II

Leading off to the north of Piazza del Duomo is the gaudily opulent Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II. If you are into shopping visiting the Gallery is definitely one of the best things to do in Milan. A cruciform glass-domed gallery was designed in 1865 by Giuseppe Mengoni, who was killed when he fell from the roof a few days before the inaugural ceremony.

It used to be the focal point for the parading Milanese on their passeggiata. These days, visitors rather than locals are more likely to swallow the extortionate prices at the gallery’s cafés. They include the historic Zucca, now Camparino, with its glorious 1920s tiled interior, and the newer Ristorante Cracco.

Shops, too, are aimed at visitors to the city, with top designer stores occupying most of the gallery. Somehow, however, the galleria still manages to retain most of its original dignity, helped along by quietly elegant boutiques including the handsome 80-year-old Prada shop in the centre.

Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan © patronestaff/Shutterstock

Explore Pinacoteca di Brera

Milan’s most prestigious art gallery, the Pinacoteca di Brera was opened to the public in 1809 by Napoleon. The emperor filled the building with works looted from the churches and aristocratic collections of French-occupied Italy. It’s big: your visit will probably be more enjoyable if you’re selective, dipping into the collection guided by your own personal tastes.

See an unforgettable performance at La Scala

The world-famous Teatro alla Scala opera house, popularly known as La Scala, was commissioned by Empress Maria Theresa of Austria from the architect Piermarini. Many of the leading names in Italian opera had their major works premiered here, including Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini. But it is Giuseppe Verdi.

The post-World War II period saw another breathtaking roll call of top composers and musical performers – among them Schoenberg, Lucio Berio, Rudolf Nureyev and Maria Callas. Today, La Scala is embarking on a new direction – when Riccardo Chailly replaced Daniel Baremboim as musical director in 2015. He pledged to put the Italian repertoire centre-stage once again.

Tucked into one corner of the theatre, a museum features costumes, sets, composers’ death masks, plaster casts of conductors’ hands and a rugged statue of Puccini in a capacious overcoat. A visit to the auditorium is included in the admission price, provided there is no rehearsal taking place. Times when the auditorium is empty are listed fortnightly online.

Temporary exhibitions also take place at the museum and are included in the admission price. Guided tours of the theatre, as well as the chance to visit the Ansaldo Workshops where sets are crafted and costumes made, are possible upon reservation via the Museo Scala website.

Milan, La Scala © Shutterstock

Visit the Royal Palace of Milan

The Royal Palace in Milan has served as the seat of government for centuries. Today it is the focal point of Milan's cultural life. The palace hosts contemporary art and renowned exhibitions on its extensive grounds of around 7,000 square metres. More than 1,500 masterpieces are on display every year at the museum.

During the Second World War, the palace was very close to destruction. In 1947, thanks to Italy's Cultural Heritage Superintendence the palace has been restored, although some of the architectural decorations have had to be sacrificed.

Today it's hard to imagine a place that plays the biggest role in artistic life in Milan. It has hosted exhibitions of works by internationally renowned artists such as Claude Monet and Pablo Picasso.

Royal Palace of Milan - View from Milan Cathedral © PHOTOCREO Michal Bednarek/Shutterstock

Take a science lesson at Leonardo da Vinci National Museum

The museum, named after the eminent artist and scientist Leonardo da Vinci, is the largest museum in Italy that is dedicated to science and technology.

Leonardo da Vinci National Museum is housed in an ancient monastery of San Vittore al Corpo and is divided into 7 main sections:

  • Materials
  • Transport
  • Energy
  • Communication
  • Leonardo da Vinci, Art & Science
  • New Frontiers
  • Science for young people

Each section is of great interest to children and adults alike, making this museum a definite leader among the things to do in Milan.

See famous Colonne di San Lorenzo

Towards the northern end of Corso Ticinese stands San Lorenzo Maggiore. This graceful building with a quiet dignity is somewhat at odds with the skateboarding and partying that goes on in the piazza outside. Founded in the fourth century, it was built with masonry salvaged from various Roman buildings. The sixteen Corinthian columns outside – the Colonne di San Lorenzo – were placed here in the fourth century as a portico to the church.

The Colonne or Columns di San Lorenzo is an ancient Roman ruins located in front of the San Lorenzo Basilica in Milan, Italy © saiko3p/Shutterstock

Discover the history of Castello Sforzesco

With its crenellated towers and fortified walls, the red-brick Castello Sforzesco is one of Milan’s most striking landmarks. The result of numerous rebuildings, it was begun by the Viscontis, destroyed by mobs rebelling against their regime in 1447, and rebuilt by their successors, the Sforzas.

Under Lodovico Sforza the court became one of the most powerful, luxurious and cultured of the Renaissance, renowned for its ostentatious wealth and court artists like Leonardo and Bramante. Lodovico’s days of glory came to an end when Milan was invaded by the French in 1499. From then until the end of the nineteenth century the castle was used as a barracks by successive occupying armies.

Just over a century ago it was converted into a series of museums. Note that ongoing restoration means that parts of the complex may be closed when you visit.

If your heart goes out to more unconventional destinations for your trip to Italy, you may be able to find something to your liking in our list of the best alternatives to Italy's famous landmarks.

Aerial view of Sforzesco Castle in Milan © Aleksandr Medvedkov/Shutterstock

Go back in time at Piazza dei Mercanti

Northwest out of Piazza del Duomo, at the start of pedestrianized Via Dante which leads to the Castello Sforzesco, lies Piazza dei Mercanti, the commercial centre of medieval Milan.

The square is dominated by the thirteenth-century Palazzo della Ragione, where council meetings and tribunals were held on the upper floor, with markets under the porticoes below. The stone relief on the facade above the arcade shows the rather forlorn-looking Oldrado da Tresseno.

Opposite, the striped black-and-white marble Loggia degli Orsi, built in 1316, was where council proclamations were made and sentences announced. The coats of arms of the various districts of Milan are just about visible beneath the grime left by Milanese smog.

Piazza dei Mercanti, Milan © fldlcc/Shutterstock

Visit San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore

Bits and pieces of Roman buildings can be found across the city centre, but the Museo Archeologico presents more domestic examples of Milan’s Roman heritage. Housed in the ex-Monastero Maggiore (known as the Milan Sistine Chapel) the museum has some compelling displays of glass phials, kitchen utensils and jewellery from Roman Milan.

The inner cloister is home to the remains of a Roman dwelling dating from the first to third century AD, as well as some beautiful frescoes from the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries. From here a walkway leads to a building on Via Nirone, which houses findings from the Early Middle Ages and the Etruscan and Greek eras.

San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore in Milan, Italy © VIacheslav Lopatin/Shutterstock

Enjoy the exquisite beauty of Basilica di Sant'Ambrogio

The church of Sant’Ambrogio was founded in the fourth century by Milan’s patron saint, St Ambrose. The saint’s remains still lie in the church’s crypt, but there’s nothing left of the original church in which his most famous convert, St Augustine, first heard him preach.

The present twelfth-century church is the blueprint for many of Lombardy’s Romanesque basilicas. However, it is one of the city’s loveliest, reached through a collonnaded quadrangle with column capitals carved with rearing horses, contorted dragons and an assortment of bizarre predators. Inside, it is embellished with works by Italian Renaissance painters Ambrogio Bergognone, Bernardino Luini and Bernardino Lanino.

Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio in Milan © Shutterstock

Feel the Italian football spirit at San Siro Stadium

Milan has two rival football teams – Inter Milan and AC Milan – which share the G. Meazza or San Siro stadium, playing on alternate Sundays. In 1899 AC (Associazione Calcio or Football Association) Milan was founded by players from the Milan Cricket and Football Club.

Eight years later, a splinter group broke away to form Inter in reaction to a ruling banning foreigners playing in the championships. Inter – or the Internationals – were traditionally supported by the middle classes. AC Milan, with its socialist red stripe, claimed the loyalty of the city’s working class.

This distinction was blown apart in the mid-1980s when the ardent capitalist Silvio Berlusconi bought the ailing AC and revived its fortunes, leaving many an AC fan with a moral quandary. Their twice-yearly derbies are a highlight of the city’s calendar and well worth experiencing live.

There are hourly guided tours around Stadio San Siro stadium which includes a visit to the club’s museum. Match tickets can be bought here. You can also buy tickets for AC Milan matches on the team’s website, or on the Inter website.

Empty San Siro stadium, Milan © Bokic Bojan/Shutterstock

Take a peaceful stroll through the Cimitero Monumentale

The Cimitero Monumentale is one of the two largest cemeteries in Milan, famous for its elaborate headstones and monuments.

It was designed by the architect Carlo Maciachini (1818–1899) and was conceived to unite the small Milanese cemeteries scattered around the city.

The main entrance to the cemetery is through the Famedio, a solid building of marble and stone that houses the tombs of some of the city's and country's most distinguished citizens.

The Civico Mausoleo Palanti is a tomb constructed for the honorable "Milanese" designed by the architect Mario Palanti. In the heart of the cemetery there is a memorial to the 800 Milanese who tragically died in Nazi concentration camps. There are also the graves of famous personalities, such as that of Vladimir Horowitz, considered to be one of the best pianists who ever lived.

Exterior of 'Cimitero Monumentale Di Milano' in Milan © A G Baxter/Shutterstock

Take a day trip to the lakes

When in Milan you must visit the lakes

to the north of the city. Lake Garda is the largest lake in all of Italy, but Lake Como is probably the most famous thanks to its celebrity connections and romantic lake towns like Bellagio

For a quieter, more tourist-light experience, head to slightly less visited Lake Maggiore

. Or go extremely low-key and discover, almost secret, Lake Orta.

Experience the picturesque lakes of Northern Italy, including Lake Garda, Como, Lugano and Maggiore with our 8-days tailor-made tour to the enchanting Italian lakes

Gazing at lakes is one of the few free things to do in Milan

Where to stay in Milan:

  • Hotel Principe Di Savoia
  • Offering a top-floor spa and spacious rooms with classic design and luxury furniture, Hotel Principe Di Savoia - Dorchester Collection is 100 m from Milan’s Repubblica Metro and Train Station.

  • Porta Garibaldi
  • Set a 2-minute walk from the lively Corso Como pedestrian area in Milan, Porta Garibaldi offers modern accommodation with free WiFi. Piazza Gae Aulenti square and Milan Porta Garibaldi Train Station are both 350 m away.

  • Ostello Bello
  • Featuring 3 furnished terraces with hammocks, Ostello Bello is a 10-minute walk from Milan Cathedral. You will receive a free drink at your arrival, and WiFi is free throughout.

To find even more accomodation options check our list of the top places to stay in Milan.

And to find more inspiration for your Italian trip - read our guide about best things to do in Italy

.

If you prefer to plan and book your trip to Italy without any effort and hassle, use the expertise of our local travel experts

to make sure your trip will be just like you dream it to be.

Ready for a trip to the Milan

in Italy ? Check out the snapshot The Rough Guide to Italy . If you travel further in Italy, read more about the best time to go , the best places to visit and best things to do in Italy . For inspiration use the Italy itineraries from our Italy Travel Guides and our local travel experts . A bit more hands on, learn about getting there , getting around the country and where to stay once you are there.

We may earn commission when you click on links in this article, but this doesn’t influence our editorial standards. We only recommend services that we genuinely believe will enhance your travel experiences.

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written by Greg Dickinson
updated 11/8/2022
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